Monday, September 16, 2019

Die Fledermaus – revenge served as chilled as the champagne fuelling this updated duplicitous farce (NI Opera at Grand Opera House until Saturday 21 September)

Falke is seeking revenge for an incident years ago that he cannot forget or forgive. Becoming inebriated at a fancy dress party, he was abandoned by his companion, and became a figure of ridicule. So he sets up Gabriel von Eisenstein on the eve of a short spell in prison, luring him to a party with the promise of fit ballerinas. Cue lots of disguises, swapping identities, costumes and genders, with familiar faces turning up in unexpected venues alongside very familiar Johann Strauss melodies as the story Die Fledermaus unfolds in Northern Ireland Opera’s latest production.

Eisenstein is portrayed by Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer as a Harvey Weinstein-style libidinous figure with a wandering eye to match his wandering hands and, we presume, wandering penis. Batman to his Robin is Stephan Loges’ Falke, played as a deceptively upright and decent fellow, until his revengeful plan is revealed.

NI Opera Studio alumnus Maria McGrann has great fun with her role as the Eisenstein family’s maid Adele who is the first – but my no means the last – fraud to be uncovered by the plot. While her voice isn’t quite as strong as the principals – a problem also for Conor Breen’s Blind and Mark Pancek’s prison governor Frank (with a mop of Boris Johnson hair) in a number of – her shrugs and asides cut through busy scenes and catch your eye over some of the more experiences on-stage talent. No such problem for Alexandra Lubchansky, in whose solid soprano hands rests Eisenstein’s compromised but savvy wife Rosalinde who is courted by Donegal tenor John Porter playing Alfred. Duplicity runs in the family.

Andrea Kaempf’s set looks like the cargo bay of a space freighter. The perspective-busting space is remarkably simple when compared with some previous NI Opera productions, yet it is flexible and easily decorated with light and video as it morphs from posh marbled house, to the scene of a party and finally, the local prison. Kevin Smith shines precision beams through the windows in the roof, and creates some rich vignettes with the principal cast in vivid colour contrasted against the monochrome set.

A very modern English translation of Karl Haffner’s libretto by Meredithg Oakes and director Walter Sutcliffe gives this production of Die Fledermaus a real contemporary feel, and creates a firm foundation for some of the more whacky creative decisions (like a roller-blading waiters, filling the mezzo-trouser role of Prince Orlofsky with the fabulous and shimmering counter-tenor Denis Lakey in drag, letting Falke acknowledge the drama he was directing during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3, and allowing some characters to keep their local accents despite their Germanic names).

John Linehan gets into quite the stupor playing jailer Frosch and despite the comic dialogue-only role, manages to squeeze in a few bars of a crowd-pleasing Nessun Dorma and enough McFettridgisms to connect this operetta with the adult pantomime it so quickly could become.   

Despite being sung in English throughout, the surtitles at each side of the stage offer a useful safety net for the audience. I’m a big fan and being able to quickly take in the last three lines turns what looks like a complicated plot into an easily understood operetta.

The Ulster Orchestra are to be applauded for their flowing waltzes and polkas, as well as their necessary restraint at never allowing the orchestra pit to overpower the unamplified singers above the musicians’ heads. The acting chorus add colour and constant movement to their scenes (as well as singing their hearts out).

NI Opera continues to improve. While the ambition of previous productions like Turandot was sky high, its recent autumn shows are becoming ever more accessible, and the farcical nature of Die Fledermaus together with the modern-day resonance and over-the-top characters make it a fun night out and a good unrarefied introduction to opera.

If there’s one sticking point, it’s the ending which allows both Eisenstein infidels to forgive each other and live happily ever after. Having taken back control, how could Rosalinde ever trust the “snake in human skin” she married? And the ginger lover seems to have been quickly forgotten. Ditching the last page of the manuscript and leaving everything up in the air, or adding a slap or two in the face or an exchange of ‘Manwhore!’ and ‘Hussy!’ would have better suited the mood set up by the rest of the show.

Die Fledermaus continues at the Grand Opera House with performances on Tuesday 17, Thursday 19 and Saturday 21 September at 7.30pm.

Photo credit: Bradley Quinn


DMcC said...

Thank you, going tonight to see it, so I've been reading up on the plot etc

Constanza Mozart said...

Another great production from NI Opera, and how fantastic to see so many local singers in leading roles. Ben Mateer was quite outstanding